Relying on `a direct line to the people'

Ehrlich delivers message via talk radio and TV

April 01, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Hoping to force action on his centerpiece witness-intimidation bill, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called on a favorite weapon in dealing with a reluctant legislature: TV.

Just in time for Wednesday's 5 p.m. news, the Republican governor strode into his ceremonial reception room alongside Patricia C. Jessamy, Baltimore's Democratic state's attorney, and hammered home the notion that opponents of the bill are bucking an issue that crosses partisan, racial and geographic bounds.

His message delivered, the governor refused to take questions on any other topics and walked out of the room.

In recent months, Ehrlich has moved aggressively to bypass reporters and lawmakers to make his case in his terms to the people, a tactic that echoes the strategy of President Bush and other politicians, particularly Republicans, nationwide.

Ehrlich has had a prickly relationship with the press since the first year of his term, when reporters filed stories about the administration's early flounderings.

Since then, he has become increasingly adept at using the media to present his ideas and image on his terms through no-question news conferences, elaborately staged media events and, above all, frequent appearances on talk radio, where his views are rarely challenged.

"Talk radio is a critical component of any politician's quiver as far as being able to reach the people," Ehrlich told WBAL-AM Saturday morning host Bruce Elliott, explaining why he had resumed a twice-monthly show on the radio station. "No one is misquoted. ... It's a direct line to the people."

The governor's supporters say he is wise to bypass skeptical Democrats and print reporters.

"This guy has the ability to connect with the average citizens of Maryland. He's a straight talker, and people like that," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House Minority Whip from Southern Maryland, who said Ehrlich is almost "Reaganesque" in his ability to present himself.

Others compare Ehrlich with President Bush in his ability to use news events and electronic media, not the mainstream print press, to get out his message.

Democrats generally concede that Ehrlich is skilled in using the bully pulpit. But many of them complain that he is too focused on promoting himself and spends too little time on the less-glamorous work of building coalitions and passing legislation.

"I understand the political side," said Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, a Charles County Democrat. "You can go out there and actively campaign and build your party, or you can win over the people by the job you do. My preference, and I'm not his political adviser, would be to work on providing good government."

Ehrlich uses talk radio and other electronic media so much because he is good at it, said the governor's communications director, Paul Schurick.

"He has used his very plain-spoken style to bring important issues on people's minds to the public debate," Schurick said.

Ehrlich is not alone in trying to pitch his ideas directly through talk radio and scripted media events, said Trevor Parry-Giles, a professor of communications and political science at the University of Maryland who wrote a book on President Clinton's use of image making. Almost all Republican governors now do the same thing, he said.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has become renowned for his ability to sell policies like movie tickets, a trait that gives him tremendous political power because of his state's referendum process.

But Ehrlich appears to model himself more closely on Bush in his folksy, regular-guy tone, Parry-Giles said. On talk radio, he frequently talks about sports or his family, not politics.

When he does deal with politics, Ehrlich works to present his message on his terms.

Stint on TV

He unveiled his $26 billion budget proposal in January by sitting in front of cameras from nearly every television station in the state, pointing to color-coded pie charts showing a thick wedge for education and health care and proclaiming himself proud of his plan.

Before any of the dozens of reporters assembled could toss out a question about the part of the state's landmark education spending increase plan that he did not fund, the governor stood up and walked out, leaving his subordinates to handle the details.

A month later, after he was forced to fire a longtime aide who had been spreading rumors about Mayor Martin O'Malley's private life, Ehrlich asked reporters to meet him and spent a few minutes condemning the former employee's conduct before an aide called out, "Last question."

That is not to say Ehrlich avoided talking about the former aide, Joseph F. Steffen Jr. He went on talk radio that night, the next morning and again the following Saturday, all on WBAL, where a series of talk show hosts spent much of the time focusing on whether Steffen was exposed through a Democratic plot.

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